Will Voters Respond to a Message of Unity or of Division?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 2, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

For months, many commentators have argued that voters are sick and tired of partisanship and division. The years of Clinton-bashing by conservatives and Bush-bashing by liberals have taken a toll on the less polarized American public, and Americans are looking for a true uniter. At least that’s what many observers are saying.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has gotten plenty of mileage from the message of bringing people together and crossing the deep ideological divide, which he first offered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s a United States of America,” he asserted.

OK, for argument’s sake, let’s just say that we all buy that analysis for the moment. If that’s right, how can anyone possibly explain what former Democratic Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is doing?

“The Washington establishment is trying to write us out of the campaign … they don’t want people to hear what John Edwards is saying, because it will mean the end of big money’s stranglehold over our government,” wrote Edwards consultant Joe Trippi in a June 23 fundraising e-mail.

Two days later, Edwards’ deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince wrote in an e-mail “The whole Washington establishment wants our campaign to go away, because they know that John Edwards means the end to business as usual.” The e-mail goes on to assert that everyone from “Washington lobbyists and PACs” to “political mercenaries and the chattering class” oppose Edwards’ presidential bid because he “doesn’t play by their rules.”

The e-mail says that “they don’t want the American people to hear the message,” adding, “They call him a hypocrite because he came from nothing, built a fortune while standing up for regular people … [and] has the nerve to remember where he came from.”

Edwards is and has been running a classic “us versus them” campaign, built on class differences and economic populism. Candidates of both parties often run against Washington, D.C., but Edwards’ message is bigger than that. It’s far more class-based.

As such, the former Senator is running on an inherently more divisive message, which appears to strongly contradict the notion that America needs someone who can unify it. And that message isn’t new to Edwards, the man who spent almost an entire election cycle talking about “two Americas.”

Sure, I know what you are thinking. It’s direct mail, Stu, you aren’t supposed to take it seriously. Every candidate’s direct mail is over the top. Those messages are intended to get people to reach into their wallets and open their checkbooks, not to discuss things in a measured, thoughtful or even rational way.

Sorry, but Edwards’ campaign is using this “us versus them” approach more than in fundraising e-mails, and language like this, even in e-mails, contributes to the overall tone of our politics.

More than that, in this particular case, it’s intellectually dishonest.

Take another look at the quote from above. Here is the full quotation: “They call him a hypocrite because he came from nothing, built a fortune while standing up for regular people during some of their toughest times, and — heaven forbid! — he has the nerve to remember where he came from and still care passionately about guaranteeing every family the opportunities he had to get ahead.”

That’s not why “they” call Edwards a hypocrite. It’s not because he cares about guaranteeing every family the opportunities to get ahead. No, “they” (whoever they are) call him a hypocrite because he talks about helping people out of poverty but spends $400 of his own money on a haircut and built a 10,400-square-foot main house on 102 acres, with a total value at more than $5 million.

They also may call him a hypocrite because his new TV spot airing in New Hampshire is one of those feel-good “we’re all in it together” ads that offers a very different message from his direct mail. The future of America “depends on all of us,” says Edwards in the ad, titled “The Strength of America.” “It’s the American people,” he says, avoiding any us versus them rhetoric.

Maybe you think it’s unfair to compare the Senator’s e-mails and TV ads.

Sorry, but I don’t. Campaigns ought to be responsible for things they say, especially when we are talking about the written word or ads. While a candidate on the stump can make a slip or fail to consider the full implications of what he or she has said, consultants and responsible staffers have the opportunity to consider what they have written.

While Edwards talks about change, he, more than any other top-tier candidate in either party, uses the same divisive rhetoric and us versus them appeals that we’ve seen over the past decade (and actually, since William Jennings Bryan).

From a strategic point of view (and if he happens to have the resources to continue to deliver his message), Edwards may figure that this kind of message can motivate base Democratic voters. We’ll see if he is right. At the very least, given the apparent conventional wisdom of voter fatigue with partisanship and confrontation, his gamble is an interesting one. Unfortunately, it isn’t helping the tone of this campaign any.